Clarence Thomas, Morgan State University coach, comes from the old-fashioned school of football thinking: leadership, hard work, discipline and a stingy defense will win games.
Thomas also believers that practice twice a week at 6:30 a.m. will push his players to success, if not wake them up early.
"It's unusual to practice at 6:30 a.m.," says Bear defensive tackle Elvis Franks, who manages to make the Tuesday and Thursday sessions without fail. "I had to get myself an alarm clock. Not too many people miss it, and we just don't sign up for 8 o'clock classes. It's good. There are less distractions and we feel like we're a little family out there."
Apparently the early-to-rise philosophy works. Thomas, now in his second year at the Baltimore school, has led the team to an 8-1 mark and No. 4 ranking in Division II, going into the regular season finale against Howard University Saturday at Morgan.
"It's just something we thought we should do. It's something our players fell is special," thomas said about the early practices, which supplement the daily 3:30 p.m. sessions. Thomas adds with a laugh, "And at least it gets our players up for class twice a week."
Morgan State, whose only loss was to Grambling, 28-18, in the second game of the season, relies on a bruising defense that this season got help from a resurgent offense. Last season the Beras went 5-5-1 when they scored only 78 points.
The principal difference, according to Franks, has been freshman quarterback Darrell Coulter. Despite 14 interceptions, the Charleston, S.C., native has 1,349 yards passing, 12 short of the Bear single-season record, and 12 touchdown passes, three short of another Bear mark.
Coulter leads the Mid-eastern Athletic Conference in passing and total offense.
"He's a quiet person but he's made a big difference. We had problems at quarterback before. He's a very intelligent player," Franks says.
Coulter's favorite targets are Curtis Henderson (30 catches, 427 yards), Clarence Holzendorf (24, 496) and Mike Holston (17,291). Hnderson, the MEAC's leading receiver, missed the past two games with a knee injury, but may be ready for Howard.
Morgan State is the leading passing team in the MEAC but Thomas prefers to talk about his defense, nicknamed "The Quiet Storm" by linebacker Gerald Huggins.
The defense, allowing fewer than 10 points a game, possesses two anchors in Franks and Huggins, Franks, a 6-foot-6, 247-pound senior, has 80 tackles and five-sacks. Huggins a co-captain, leads the team in tackles with 103.
"Elvis is awesome," Thomas says. "He runs the 40 in 4.5, 4.6 seconds. He and Huggins are two of the most complete players we've ever seen. They're cut from the same mold as Willie Lanier and Ray Chester (Morgan State alumni who have played professionally)."
The "unsung heroes," Thomas says, are nose guard Mike Lyons and linebacker Maurice Brooks (87 tackles). Also playing well are defensive end Andre Wickham and linebacker Arthur Cook.
"We had a nice defense when Coach Thomas came here," Franks remarks, "but he put the final touches on. He put in a lot of new defenses."
Morgan expects a Division II playoff bid after a series of mediocre seasons. Eight temas are selected. Delaware, Youngstown (Ohio) State and North Dakota already have bids. Thomas expects to get a bid Sunday.
"The whole approach taken this year is one of guys understanding their goals. We have all decided on our goals. If practicing at 6:30 in the morning is one method of doing that, the players must accept that," Thomas says.
"We're almost there," says Franks, who would like to see his team push ahead of Grambling as No. 1 in the Mutual Black Net-work poll. "If we had to play Grambling another time, not at the beginning, we would win. We lost our quarterback in that game, and that was one of the worst Grambling teams I've seen."
The new Morgan State, Franks says, not only can boast of its punishing defense but also of an offense scoring 25 points per game.
"We were like a one-winged bird. You need both," Franks says. "This year we have both wings. We can fly."
Only if they wake up.